On Tuesday, D.C. voters will determine the direction of the city's emergency shelter program when they vote on Referendum 005.
In 1984, reflecting the compassion that permeates our community, D.C. voters approved the Right to Overnight Shelter Act, commonly called Initiative 17. They did so without benefit of studies or information on the impact the initiative would have on services or on our community. Since then, experience has taught us that this approach to the homelessness problem is misdirected, so this spring, the council approved -- and the mayor signed -- D.C. Act 8-228, an amendment to reform the manner in which the District funds and operates its emergency shelter program.
So-called advocates for the homeless succeeded in getting Referendum 005 put on the ballot to stop the amendment from taking effect. Essentially, they would have us continue to provide a warehousing system for the homeless.
But D.C. Act 8-228 is the result of careful study, discussions with advocates and community organizations and hearings by the Committee on Human Services. Instead of just warehousing people, it will provide a comprehensive program of social services to assist persons eligible for emergency shelter. As a condition for receipt of shelter and support services, the new act will allow shelter providers to refer substance abusers to treatment programs, refer unemployed persons for employment or job-training programs and require persons with children to enroll them in school. In addition, it reforms the contracting process to give priority to nonprofit service providers. But, most important, it removes the unabridged entitlement language. No longer would the city be required to provide a blank-check approach to overnight shelter.
D.C. Act 8-228 stresses dignity and responsibility. This legislation does not gut Initiative 17, as some advocates for the homeless maintain, and it doesn't mean people will be thrown onto the streets. On the contrary, it will strengthen our ability to provide services to persons who agree to take responsibility for their own lives.
Humanitarian concerns aside, Initiative 17 also has had a serious impact on the District's ability to control spending. While shelter was mandated at any cost, other programs paid the price. For example, in FY '85, the District spent $9.2 million on services for the homeless; the year before, it had spent $5.8 million.
In FY '88, the expenditure was $32.6 million, nearly three times the amount of four years earlier. This figure increased to $40 million in FY '89 and FY '90. The expenditure of $40 million obviously has constrained the ability of the Department of Human Services to provide other needed social services.
Why should one person's right to shelter come at the expense of our other residents? What about programs for the mentally retarded, adequate books and laboratory equipment for our schools, increased pay for our teachers, an adequate level of homemaker and chore services for senior citizens and others to prevent institutionalization, proper staffing and equipment for our public health clinic and adequate funding for D.C. General? All these services have all been reduced and will continue to be shortchanged unless Referendum 005 is defeated.
Compassion means more than merely throwing good money into a bad program. The most compassionate approach is to help people learn to help themselves. Don't be fooled into believing that the same old approach is the only approach. Vote Against Referendum 005.
H.R. Crawford represents Ward 7 on the D.C. Council and chairs the council's Committee on Human Services.